Thursday, August 9, 2012

Learning How to Learn Again

A touch more public shaming of myself . . . just a touch more.

Honestly, out of all the things I've been disappointed in about myself the one I've felt most guilty about is the collapse of my dedication for self-improvement, learning is specific. My steeled dedication of past years of constantly improving my character is, in fact, largely why I've named this blog A Giant Doing. The people I grew up around were obsessed with appearances. To be judged a great many things, all you had to do was tailor your appearance in just the right way, and people would believe that about you. If you were nice in public, then people would hold fast to the belief that you are a nice person -- regardless of how you act out your true self behind closed doors. That meant that the worst people I've ever met in my life could be judged to be the total opposite so long as they made the right images. If they smiled to conceal their inner misery then they'd be judged happy people; if they adapted temporary manners to please a particular person then they'd be judged polite, even if they dropped the manners with everyone else; and so on. What people saw is what they believed.

Deep down I reject that totally, for everything it stands for. I believe we are what we do. Quoting Aristotle, "We are what we repeatedly do." That is where our nature lies, in our actions. To be a great person, you must do great things. Quoting Rod Serling: "A giant is as a giant does."

With those words driving my core I managed to accomplish a many great things of personal worth: I cured a speech impediment I had, I identified my main career interest in life, I transformed my body with a new diet, and more. If my elders are going to be obsessed with how things appear, I'm going to be obsessed with how things  are, and that pushed me to become a self-improvement junkie, as in order to become the best person I possibly can, that means adopting the best practices I possibly can.

One of my proudest practices of the past was self-initiated and guided study of basic school subjects after I dropped out of college. Back then I didn't know what to do with my life, and I thought it was extremely irrational to gather up debt in college with that lack of direction, especially since I lost all trust in the educational system, so I dropped out and opted to educate myself while I figured out what to do with my life, which I thought, and still believe, wise, since I'd be catching up on lost knowledge, not accumulating debt, and introspecting on my life all in one.

I managed quite a dedication to it. For over a year I read textbooks about English grammar, math, philosophy, and so on, taking intensive notes, constructing my own homework assignments, and even doing review. I received not a single letter grade, and yet kept up with it. I've always greatly admired the power of a potent mind, and here I was putting that admiration to its fullest practice.

But stress kicked in, and gradually I was eroded by it. The particular problems I faced while living in Michigan grew so much that I developed obsessive thinking patterns that totally undercut my ability to concentrate on my endeavors, forcing me to spend the majority of my time thinking about and trying to solve the problems, which led to me abandoning my studies in total since I was sickeningly frustrated. Well over a year of battling petty problems made me lose the studying habit altogether, which has only faded into nothingness with the additional year I spent with a horrible landlord who introduced new stress into my life.

Now that I'm in my perfect environment I'd like to get my study habits back. If nothing else in life, I want to achieve maximizing the absolute total potential my mind has to offer. In simple terms, I want to become as smart as I possibly came, and make my mind its strongest for any endeavor I choose to take on.

I'm ashamed of myself for once having been strong enough to pursue a course of self-study for over a year, only to have yielded to pressure and have given it up for over two years now. Recognizing it as such a strong value renders me unable to ever forget about it, just like those annoying conceptual exercises I've frequently mentioned, but have always been annoyed out of making regular.

But despite my present weaknesses, I've already mentioned I have no excuses now. All the problems present in my life -- excluding state, nation, and world problems -- exist entirely in my head. I sure had a rough time getting here, but the roughness only exists in my memory now, which I obsessively revisit. At this point in my life, I have gotten exactly what I wanted: A personal apartment free of roommates, so as to avoid irrational people, and a job in fine dining, where I actually like the people I work with and the prospects of rising up are good. Now is the time to get back on track chasing after my ideals, as this is the perfect situation to do so, and I can't stop the minutes of my life from ticking away. I must get rid of lingering negativity.

Anyhow, I need to reincorporate a new way to integrate learning into my life, so I can resume once again making maximal use of my mental functions, to aid me forth in reaching my absolute fullest potential, the highest I can possibly rise.

Yet, in trying to think of such measures I've been hitting tiny little snags, sufficient to pull my coat and me in it back. Since, over these past two years, my lifestyle has dramatically changed, I also need to dramatically changes my methods and thinking about how I could learn most effectively, so that time is used most productively. In contrast to my fresh-college dropout days where I could literally study all day, I work a lot to earn my living and have a long commute, and have odd and potentially changing days off. Ultimately this changes nothing, but it does require a lot of rethinking of methods since, to make full use of my time, I need to figure out different methodologies in order to be able to adapt to the context and continue being constructive, instead of staying stuck inside the box believing that I must have a chair, textbook, notebook, and hours to be able to accomplish anything resembling learning.

For example, my long commutes to and from work could be very useful introspection times. I love rubberducking -- the introspection method of talking to an inanimate object to aid thinking -- and do it frequently in the car since people will probably assume I'm speaking on a hands-free phone. That would be an ideal time to, say, think about something I read, do memorization exercises, or what have you.

I'm not going to brainstorm a curriculum here, but I will plan what I need to, er, plan so that I begin planning beyond that planning. In other words, I need to identify and address the snags that hold me back -- which I'll do privately in a journal -- and list out the factors of my life that I need to consider in order to be able to adapt my learning appropriately.

Onto list format!:

Concentration: 

 As mentioned earlier this week, I have not given this basic mental skill an iota of the respect it actually deserves, as while it may be trivial and simplistic, it's actually very huge. For one, I've learned it plays a role in the foundation of one's very mental health: If you have negative thinking habits and a poor ability to guide your thoughts, then your poor concentration will serve your misery since you'll be less able to move yourself away from painful thinking patterns, such as revisiting memories of a trauma. In skill development concentration is vital, as concentration send very strong signals to the brain that help initiate change according to the stimuli, so if you allow your mind to wander frequently then you're likely never to get good at anything. You won't learn to write well if you frequently fidget during the actual writing practice, for example. The list goes on. In short, concentration: YOU NEED IT. 

A failure to develop this ability is most likely why I've been so miserable lately. I goof off too much in the morning after waking and stuff in meaningful mental activities only at the last moment, so when it comes time to work the misery is heightened by the current surplus of manual labor. Ugh. Training is needed.

It'll be simple enough to devise something to improve it, though still surely hard in practice. Generally, all one really needs to do is cease fidgeting during any activity that requires the use of the mind, and the maximum elimination of distractions. Something so simple as writing an detailed e-mail to a friend can be a huge benefit: All you have to do is know what you want to say, and keep your mind and eyes on the e-mail as much as possible, until it's finished. Even if it's only for a paragraph or two, with weak concentration this can be remarkably hard: You might want to look around the room, play with your fingers, switch browser tabs, shuffle through songs, and whatnot, all tiny things that are hugely detrimental to concentration. If you push yourself to write that e-mail start to finish with a minimum of distraction, you've already gone a long way, and just need to transfer that thinking to other areas in your life, such as refusing to repeatedly cycle through browser tabs, consume music slowly rather than rapidly switch songs, and so on.

Though, specialized exercises might still help. This Art of Manliness article has been more instructive than expected. In addition to the multitude of exercises it suggests, it also points out that the mark of truly good concentration is the ability to focus on uninteresting things, which is a fresh insight to me. When you think about it, that's right. Things that are interesting or captivating are almost cheating in terms of concentration, since their nature requires little focus *power* on your part; it's easy! When you can easily keep your mind on boring things without actually becoming bored or distraction, then tons of doors open for you, like the ability to learn a great deal more and more effectively without being pushed away by the subject's possibly boring nature.

I'm definitely going to do the simple thing of minimizing distractions in my activities, particularly online, but I'll ruminate on the AoM suggestions. I'm going to be writing a self-improvement list shortly after this.

Efficiency:

This is at the top of my worry list, actually. As mentioned before, my lifestyle has drastically change. Before I was able to study all day if I wanted to; now I spend almost literally half of the 24-hour day working and driving. That means I'm going to have to devise some new methods, such as figuring out how to introspect productively while in the car (and avoiding crashing), how to think constructively at work, and generally make better use of my time so that I'm not tied down to the belief that I need a chair and textbook to be able to do any worthy learning.

Generally, this means I need to learn how to learn on the go, in different environments and contexts, with different materials available and absent. Traditional methods at home, talking in the car, internal thinking at work: Methods that keep me moving forward in my learning all while suiting the situation. Successful planning here will eliminate the worry that I don't have time to study, as I'll simply be using different study methods to adapt to the place and make myself a portable scholar.

The biggest hangup that needs to be fought are all my ingrained conceptions of what "right" learning consists of. For example, I'm sure many have fought with the hangup of being tempted to read a book cover to cover, from fear of the book police, when only a few sections or fewer may be of actual value. This is largely stuck in my own head, for I still hold onto the emotional belief that a book can only be productively learned if studied like that in a formal school setting, when really drastically different methods could save me time by having me pick out only the useful sections, when they're useful, and still being able to integrate it into my mind without running into the error one would in, say, trying to learn multiplication before addition.

Style:

It nearly redundant to the above, but still worthy of individual consideration. Like above, this means that I'll need to devise new methods to suit different situations: Reading and writing at home, talking in the car, internal thinking at work, etc. Only this facet addresses how effective these methods could be on my own personal being. In the past, a lot of stubbornness through hold steadfast to fallacies have hindered my learning before.  

My hearing-impairment, for instance, once made me feel extremely unconfident in my ability to comprehend through listen, so I would frequently self-sabotage myself by purposely lowering my attention whenever I was asked to learn by listening, because I would always wait until reading or written instruction was available. There's nothing wrong with my listening comprehension; it's was my own lack of confident in it that nullified its ability.

Same goes for the new methods I'll have to devise. In my mind there still exists some stubborn errors about what good learning entails. For instance, part of my emotions still stubbornly adheres to the belief that, in note-taking, I must have one entire notebook dedicated to one singular book or subject, which in effect feeds into the belief that I must study a book cover to cover, lest I be buried in notebooks each with only a few pages filled. These new methods will require new note-taking skills, specifically a way to organize notes, because if I'm only studying limited sections of a book or using a book for lectures also then I'll need a note-taking style to adapt to the fact few to no notebooks will be dedicated to one single textbook or subject or whatever.

Conceptual exercises:

AH YES . . . The thing I've been talking about for years, while failing dramatically to make a regular habit despite a sincere desire to habituate it. As per its nature of something I view as a true value, I have a hard time incorporating it, but never forget it.

With the honing, fixing, simplifying, and whatnot that I've done to this it would need its own article to explain, so for simplicity I'll just say that my conceptual exercises are merely a more advanced vocabulary exercise. Instead of just learning a word, its spelling, and its definite, I go beyond by trying to understand the essence of the term, how its connected to other concepts, how much information is required to fully understand it and fully ground it to reality, and what perceptual things it's attached to.

Sound like a lot of work? It is, which is why I've been having so much damn trouble making it a daily habit. I wanted to dedicate myself to do ten of such exercises per day, but have always failed because, man, it's a lot of work. It's a huge nuisance to interrupt the flow of my day to document a single word for later research, and every time I do the exercises there's a huge urge to want to rush through it, sacrificing understanding.

There might be only one solution: Make it a mindset. Instead of making this an isolated exercise where I collect words to research later and do in one fell-swoop exercise, I need to adopt a whole new way of thinking where these exercises seamlessly fit into my thinking habits without interference, so that I can do the exercises rapidly when I need or want to do it, so that it doesn't interrupt the flow of my work, eliminates the annoying nature, and makes is possible for me to go beyond ten concepts daily. The key is to make it a thinking habit, something that will come easily with practice, where eventually the resistance will cease and I'll begin to actually *want* to do them, or do them near-automatically through habit.

But man, that will be a lot of work. In creating new habits you've always got to fight the old ones, and it's always quite a, er, fight. Work that'll be worth it nonetheless.

* * * * * 

These are what I believe to be all that I need to consider in develop a new set of study methods, so that I can begin selecting books and begin studying, so that the potency of my mind rises and with it the strength of my character, my ability to get great things done, and eventually be a giant doing. To be able to perform great actions you must have great knowledge, and great knowledge requires effort in acquisition. No shortcuts or easy ways.

The next step from here is to, well, plan some more, this time explicitly. I'm going to get some paper out and plan out some explicit self-improvement, which I probably won't share here since tracking my self-improvement meticulously is both time-consuming and boring.

To start, I need to train my concentration and attitude. The concentration portion has been explained enough, but by attitude I mean I need to reignite a love of learning. Lately these past years I've have been so drastically overconcerned with the practical use of knowledge that it's paralyzed me from being able to choose a learning subject, as I worry too much about its immediate use. Instead I need to cultivate a general love of learning that will enable me to be interested in learning potentially anything I choose to set my mind on, and judiciously use in order to guide myself to the most useful areas and decide upon practical use later. Not all scientists know the practice uses of their discoveries right away; sometimes someone else figures it out, or they might figure it out at a later date. Worrying too much about practical use can disable one from exploring unknown areas that have no known use, but could surprise you with something useful if you only studied it.

It's time again to trek the fields of knowledge on my own terms, lest I'll never forgive myself for letting my potential slip away.    

 

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